Less than a year after competing in his second Olympics in Albertville, France and three weeks after leaving Jamaica as a Sandhurst-trained Army captain, Devon Harris was working as a line cook in a Bronx restaurant.
It was the winter of 1993 and Harris was chasing the American dream after making the difficult decision to migrate with his young family. He was going to do whatever it took to provide for them and keep on pushing which is part of the title of his new book which was launched recently in Toronto at the Jamaican Consulate.
Keep on Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings takes readers on a journey from Harris’ upbringing in the tough Olympic Gardens neighbourhood to the Olympics Games and his life in a new homeland that sees him traveling the world inspiring public and private organizations, including Fortune 100 companies and individuals about the power of passion, persistence and teamwork.
“I wanted to share the lessons I learned from bobsledding and growing up in Waterhouse,” recalled Harris who was in Djibouti recently visiting American soldiers on the Red Sea. “Growing up in Waterhouse, my goal was to become an Army officer which I did by age 21. When I got to that hurdle, I asked myself if that was it and if my life was over.”
In the summer of 1987, Harris was reflecting on running barefoot at Ardenne High School and dreaming of representing Jamaica in track and field at the Olympics when he saw a story in the Army weekly newsletter requesting interested Jamaicans to sign up for the upcoming Calgary Olympics.
“I read it once and I read it over and over again because I did not believe my eyes,” said the oldest of 15 children. “I thought it was the most ridiculous story because we do not have snow and bobsledding is a winter sport that’s fast and dangerous. I did not even know where Calgary was.”
Harris’ commanding officer – Colonel Alan Douglas – suggested he try out for the team which he did and was soon on his way to Lake Placid to prepare to represent Jamaica in the 1988 Winter Games.
With limited preparation in Calgary and Innsbruck in Austria, the raw Jamaican unit still managed to finish 30th in the 42-team two-man event and complete the four-man race following a spectacular crash when driver Dudley Stokes lost control of the sled while coming out of a challenging turn on the track.
The newcomers were not listed to take part in the four-man event until Chris Stokes, who was attending the University of Idaho on a track and field scholarship at the time, showed up during the second week of the Games to support his younger brother, Dudley, and his teammates.
“As we are all here, we said let’s try the four-man event and see if we can all win a medal and go home,” remembers Harris who celebrates in 46th birthday on Christmas Day. “We said Chris, you can sprint, so come with us. That’s what happened and it remains a mystery to me how he was accredited in the space of a few days and allowed to compete for us when he was not part of the team in the first place. After three days teaching Chris what we knew, he was competing in the Olympics. Jamaicans are known for extraordinary things and that ranks right up there.”
Harris was ecstatic he had fulfilled his childhood dream of being an Olympian and being part of history as a member of the first Jamaican bobsled team to take part in the Winter Olympics.
After the Calgary and Albertville Games, he resumed military duties and is fortunate to be alive after being shot at while on the job.
U. S. embassy guards shot at Harris and his platoon while they were patrolling New Kingston during Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988. Four years later, shortly after returning from France, Harris was again caught in gunfire during violence that erupted in Rema and Tivoli Gardens following the death of drug lord, Lester Coke.
“I remember pausing briefly to marvel at the kind of life I led,” said Harris who also participated in the 1998 Nagano Games. “I was on TV in front of the entire world at the Olympics a few weeks ago and now I am a shooting target in my own country. What a life. That’s the life of a Jamaican bobsledder.”
Jamaica’s Consul General George Ramocan thanked Harris for demonstrating that life’s challenges can be surmounted with desire, drive and persistence.
“Through bobsled, Jamaica is known to many around the world,” he said. “You are the living embodiment of someone who has demonstrated that you can overcome odds. It matters not where you are born or which school you go to. It’s about who you are and your mindset…You have proven that we don’t have to settle for second best.”
This is the second book that Harris has written.
Yes, I Can, tells the story of the original bobsled team overcoming overwhelming odds and displaying courage to pursue their dreams and win the hearts of the world. Their remarkable story was captured in the film, Cool Runnings, an uproarious comedy about the embryonic bobsledders.
Keep on Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings is available at A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst Street (just south of Bloor). The book costs $33 (tax included).